I’ve been working on tidying up the recording of the recital which Sarah Wilkinson and I did in June of Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, so it does now fit on a CD properly. As well as the usual useful experience of learning from hearing yourself singing, it’s also reminded me of the challenge of which language to sing it in, that I struggled with before the performance.
On the one hand, one of the things that Schubert does best, is to combine the music with the sounds of the words themselves in Wilhelm Müller’s poem cycle, originally written in German. Along with the strong preference of the musical establishment over the last few decades to perform music ‘authentically’, ie exactly as the composer intended and as he himself would have heard it, this makes a strong case for singing the songs in the original German. This would be the generally accepted way of performing the cycle these days (although personally I have significant differences with the whole authenticist movement, but that’s a topic for another post!).
However I do also feel very strongly that the actual meaning of the words is also integral to appreciating the songs, and Schubert’s achievement in setting the poems to music. The words and sense of the poems are so subtle and nuanced, and Schubert does such a good job of building the music around them, that I just think that if people can’t understand what is being sung, then there is almost no point in singing them. The songs are not just notes which the singer happens to be singing to a random collection of vowels and consonants – the words and music together form a whole experience communicating the poet and the composer’s subtle – and in the case of this cycle, extremely powerful – meaning.
And to a London audience, this means singing the cycle in English.
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If you should happen to be free and in London in the evening on Monday week (23rd June) and like Schubert, please do come along to Christ Church in Highbury, where Sarah Wilkinson and I will be performing his song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin.
It’s a few years now since I have done any serious singing of extended length, so I’ve been enjoying spending time learning the cycle and just getting back into singing properly. Although I’ve sung various of the twenty songs in it on various occasions over the years, there are a good many that I didn’t know at all so have been learning from scratch – and of course it is quite different doing the cycle as a whole rather than just individual songs.
I find the cycle itself of Wilhelm Müller’s poems, which Schubert set to music, not an entirely easy one. While there is an essential story of ardent love, followed by disappointment, bitterness and more, there are also some other ideas and emotions in there which I confess I haven’t yet fully understood. Müller’s “hero” seems to be a troubled individual with a lot of demons to wrestle with – only some of which I feel are explained by the differences between early 19th century Germany and 21st century London.
However I’ve enjoyed spending time on it, uncovering more and more of what Schubert has hidden away in there. I am a big fan of Schubert generally (I used to enjoy playing his Impromptus for the piano a lot) and the way in which he has put Müller’s poems to music really is great fun to explore. Despite the decidedly serious tone of some of the poems, I am particularly impressed with the way he manages not to get bogged down by that, and he has plenty of fun with them too.
We’re going to do one or two other things in the concert as well, but the Schubert cycle will be the bulk of it.
It is a great cycle of songs, and Sarah and I have been working hard on it, so I hope it will be a good evening – please do think about coming along if you should be free and nearby!
The concert is at 7.30pm on Monday 23rd June at Christ Church, Highbury, London N5 1SA (map here) . Tickets £6 on the door (proceeds to charity).